NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there’s no plan for the league to expand, but he didn’t exactly pour water on the idea either.
During his remarks at the end of the league’s board of governors meeting, Bettman insisted a decision hadn’t even been made about going from 30 teams to potentially 32. He did say the NHL was getting plenty of expressions of interest, adding that "when people want to talk to us, we listen."
Bettman also laid out three factors that he called "show-stoppers" when considering potential destinations.
"You want to understand the market and can it support NHL hockey," Bettman said. "Would it be a good addition to the league? Two, you’ve got to have an arena. And three, and perhaps most important, it comes down to ownership. At 10,000 feet, those are the criteria you’re dealing with."
With all that in mind and considering the money that would pour in from expansion fees, it’s worth considering which cities could be in line if and when the NHL commits to expansion. Seattle and Quebec City are the front-runners, but other places like Toronto, Hamilton, Kansas City and Portland, Ore., are in the discussion.
"I think there’s a lot of good markets," said Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin, a prospective owner for an expansion team in Seattle. "I think that the league has done well with their TV deals. I think they’re focused. I think that they have some good ownership now, some stable ownership. I think it’s better than it has been in the last eight or nine years. I think it’s on a good trajectory, it’s going up."
When the Phoenix Coyotes were in danger of moving, everything that came out publicly from the league was smartly in support of keeping the team in Glendale, Ariz. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly espoused the virtues of the market that the new Canadian-led ownership group is trying to get the most out of now.
But the NHL had to do its homework on potential relocation options, and by all accounts Seattle fared the best. That would have to come with the promise of a new building because Key Arena is a bad fit for hockey and not a long-term option.
Seattle has been willing to discuss plans for a state-of-the-art facility, but that could be contingent on bringing an NBA team along as another tenant, even if that’s a few years later.
Levin, who founded the AHL’s Wolves in 1994, said building rinks around the area for youth hockey would be crucial, too.
The arena asterisk doesn’t detract from Seattle’s spot as the most likely location for NHL expansion. The local economy is booming, and intense fan interest in the NFL’s Seahawks and Major League Soccer’s Sounders gives the indication that there’s an appetite for another team even after the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.
"I think it’s San Jose on steroids," Levin said in a phone interview Wednesday night. "It’s a very good market, a very good sports market and they do a great job with their teams. Currently there’s no winter sports and it looks like basketball won’t be there for a few years, anyway, and I think you’d have a few years to develop a market. I think that if somebody really wanted to develop a hockey team could do well there, but it’s going to cost a lot of money and potentially a lot of time."
Bettman wants an owner who’s willing to devote time and money, so in this case Seattle would be in excellent shape. Levin offered around $500 million in an attempt to buy the Montreal Canadiens in 2009 only to be outbid by about $60 million by Geoff Molson, and he could afford the expansion fee that could range between $250 million and $400 million.
Beyond that, his priority is to build a winning franchise.
"I’m looking at something that would make sense economically. I don’t want to lose $10 million a year. I’m not saying I want to make a lot of money on it, but I would like to not lose a lot of money on it," Levin said. "And then I’d like to be able to put a team in a market that could afford to pay up for the best players because my whole interest in this is having a winning team."
With the right ingredients, a competitive team could do wonders in Seattle. Having another team in the Western Conference would balance out the NHL’s alignment, and it wouldn’t hurt to give the Vancouver Canucks a more natural geographic rival.
Quebec City also ticks off all the boxes Bettman mentioned earlier this week.
A return to Quebec City, even it follows a different path than Winnipeg and the team has a different name than the Nordiques, would revive the old rivalry with the Canadiens. The Canadian dollar has rebounded significantly since the Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995, and there’s no lack of interest in hockey in the capital of the province.
Colisee Pepsi is an outdated facility, but a new arena that will seat 18,482 is under construction and is set to open in 2015. That would be right in line with NHL expansion in the not-too-distant future.
Finding an owner wouldn’t be an issue with Quebec City. Quebecor, the owner of TVA, which will have French-language NHL rights beginning next season, could be in the discussion, as could its former CEO, Pierre Karl Peladeau, who chairs the board of Hydro-Quebec.
Much like Winnipeg, the NHL would want a local group like it got in True North, to ensure the problems that led to relocation in the mid-1990s don’t reoccur.
A handful of other cities could garner consideration because they have some of the right things in place already, including three potential spots in Ontario and three more in the United States. Bettman insisted the NHL hasn’t made power rankings for expansion.
"We didn’t rank them," Bettman said. "There is no ranking."
Kansas City has an arena in Sprint Center that opened in 2007 and has since hosted two NHL exhibition games. Fan interest is a major concern after the league failed there and left almost 40 years ago, and returning to U.S. markets has had mixed results with the Colorado Avalanche working and Atlanta Thrashers failing.
Ultimately what doomed the Thrashers to the league’s last resort of relocation was unstable ownership. Kansas City mayor Sly Jones has said there’s no natural group that has expressed interest in owning an NHL club there, and that would have to change before it’s a serious option.
In the Toronto area, Markham’s bid took a serious blow when city council nixed plans for an NHL-ready arena. Perhaps that’s for the best given that the league said repeatedly not to build with the expectation of getting a team.
A second team downtown at Air Canada Centre could make sense because of high demand in the market, but that comes with several pitfalls. It would be encroaching on the Maple Leafs’ territory, and they’d have to be compensated, and the arena dates and ice conditions would have to be looked at carefully.
It’s still an attractive possibility because the infrastructure is there.
"In Toronto, if you walk down the street you trip over a rink," Levin said. "Except for the fact that if the Leafs win a Stanley Cup there’ll be 10 million people walking on the street wearing their colours, you’d have to come in there and say this team could compete. That might not be so easy, but you’re going to have a lot of hockey fans."
There would be a lot of hockey fans for a team in Hamilton, too, even if many of them commute from Toronto to support an expansion franchise. The price of Leafs tickets is high enough that it could spawn interest in another club in the area.
Copps Coliseum, which opened in 1985, would only be a short-term option until a new arena is built. Find the right ownership and that could probably happen within a reasonable amount of time.
BlackBerry co-founder and former CEO Jim Balsillie tired to relocate a team to Hamilton on three separate occasions, but his mistakes along the way cost him and the city that chance. Balsillie won’t be getting an NHL team any time soon, so the league would have to find stable ownership from someone else in Southern Ontario — which shouldn’t be a concern.
Daly reiterated this week that he believes there’s a "strong interest in hockey" in the Pacific Northwest, and Portland could be a beneficiary of that if Seattle does not get chosen for expansion. Junior hockey has had a presence in the Oregon city since 1976 with the WHL’s Winterhawks, so there’s some evidence that the NHL could be successful there.
Moda Center, formerly known as the Rose Garden, opened in 1995 and is home to the NBA’s Trail Blazers as well as the Winterhawks. It seats 18,280, which would be right in the middle of the pack as an NHL arena.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who already has the Trail Blazers, Seattle Seahawks and a piece of the Seattle Sounds, could be a logical choice for ownership. His deep pockets would make him attractive to the league.
Las Vegas remains the most intriguing option for every North American professional sports league because it’s an untapped market but has questions as far as season-ticket-holders and gambling. Assuming the NHL would be taken off sports books with a team there, the biggest question would be if the area could support a team for the long term.
There isn’t much of a hockey tradition in the Nevada desert, but Las Vegas does have the ECHL’s Wranglers and previously an International Hockey League franchise.
The Wranglers play at Orleans Arena, which seats under 8,000 for hockey and wouldn’t be a possibility. Thomas & Mack Center, which houses UNLV college basketball, could be a very short-term fix.
Plans for a new, 20,000-seat arena in Paradise, Nevada, have been discussed for several years, but nothing has been made official. Given the money in the market, getting a facility up and working in a short period of time is the least of concerns for Las Vegas.
Ownership would be vital, and the Maloof family, which sold the NBA’s Sacramento Kings earlier this year, could be in the discussion. Joe and Gavin Maloof have looked into bringing an NHL team to Las Vegas and even met with Bettman to discuss it, according to an April report in the Sacramento Bee.
Levin has spoken to Bettman about the NHL in Seattle, too. The answer was in line with the commissioner’s comments in Pebble Beach, Calif.
"The feedback has been that they were not prepared," Levin said. "The commissioner told me that he would get back to me at such a time that there would be some interest in discussing it."
Business around the NHL is good, and any expansion fees would not have to be split with players because it doesn’t count as hockey-related revenue, so it makes sense that it’s coming at some point.
But Levin said he’s very willing to be patient. That might be sound advice for fans in these markets, too.
"If (Bettman) has people interested, he’ll talk to them," Levin said. "He’s a very smart fellow. He knows what he’s doing. He has his plan and he’ll follow it. Nobody’s going to rush him: me, you or anybody else."